British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is known to have said that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” It seems there is now a fourth kind: Green lies. Only a month before representatives from almost every country are set to meet in Paris in an attempt to hammer out a globally binding regime on greenhouse gas emissions, China, the world’s number one greenhouse gas emitter, suddenly revealed in its official statistics that the volume of coal burnt annually in China has in fact been 17 percent larger than previously reported. Oops.
The degree of the revision by the very same government that only last year declared that its coal use was in fact dropping and that it would cap coal use by 2020 is both mindboggling and illuminating. Mindboggling, because it accounts for 600 million tons of unreported coal use—an amount equivalent to more than 70 percent of the coal used by the United States, enough coal to fill 240,000 Olympic swimming pools. How could such a gigantic pile of coal go missing? And the revelation is also illuminating, because it exposes the opacity and unreliability of Chinese energy statistics. What good are China’s recent pledges to achieve peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 or to double its use of non-fossil energy by the same year if it cannot even establish a credible base line from which to begin the march toward a greener future?
Exporting the war on coal to developing Asia, where the commodity makes 70 percent of electricity generation, has been a top priority for the Obama Administration—even if the price of doing so will condemn hundreds of millions of people to energy poverty. To that end, Obama spared no effort to lure China into the West’s green agenda. To understand how central environmental issues have become to the framework of official U.S.-China relations, consider this: Of the 127 areas of cooperation agreed upon by the two countries as part of the June 2015 round of the ministerial level U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, 43 areas had to do with climate change and the environment. No other issue—foreign policy, defense, cyber, terrorism, trade, finance, and science—came even close.
Realizing Obama’s taste for all things climate, Xi Jinping chose to announce that in 2017 China will start a national emission trading system—also known as cap and trade—during his September state visit to Washington. For Obama, who tried—and failed—to pass such a scheme at home through Congress, this was a wonderful gift. “Shame on us,” climatists can now argue, “if the Chinese do it, how come we can’t?” For Xi the gesture of making the announcement in Washington rather than in Beijing or Paris was a deliberate tactic aimed at improving the atmosphere of the visit, which would otherwise have been soured by thorny issues like cybersecurity, the South China Sea dispute, and currency manipulations. Xi certainly knew his host all too well.
The newly discovered “statistical error” on China’s coal use was published only one day after Xi and French President François Holland issued in Beijing a joint presidential statement on climate change. There are two possible explanations. Either the Chinese government has never had reliable data on its economy to the degree that some have thought or, perhaps more likely, the upward revision is a clever way to establish a new benchmark from which the Western desired commitment to achieve future peaking in coal use would be easier to meet. In other words, China’s books are either messy or cooked. Either option emphasizes the Potemkin nature of a supposedly binding global climate accord.
No matter what feel-good statements and ambitious climate goals Paris will yield next month, these will be hollow as they are based on a shaky information foundation. Like lines drawn in the sand energy statistics and climate goals can be moved back and forth at will to create a perception of progress. Many world leaders who fail to demonstrate tangible results in growing their economies, fighting terrorism, or protecting their borders in the face of mass migration prefer to operate in the climate arena, where shifting the goalposts is a common practice and where perception of progress, rather than progress itself, is still rewarded. Climate fixation is an indulgence neither China nor the U.S. can afford. U.S.-China relations are too delicate and too critical for the future of the world to allow climate issues to suck up so much oxygen at the expense of far more pressing strategic matters.